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Updated: April 6, 2012 13:37 IST

Moralistic assumptions

Shohini Ghosh
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In this December 1, 2004 photo, a sex worker looks on during an AIDS awareness rally on World AIDS Day in Chennai. India, with 5.1 million cases, has the second-biggest population of HIV sufferers in the world after South Africa.
AP In this December 1, 2004 photo, a sex worker looks on during an AIDS awareness rally on World AIDS Day in Chennai. India, with 5.1 million cases, has the second-biggest population of HIV sufferers in the world after South Africa.

Gloria Steinem's “feminist approach” to trafficking and prostitution is not shared by all feminists. Many of us do not believe that abolishing sex work will stop trafficking, nor do we think that the two are synonymous. The conflation of sex-work with ‘trafficking' stems from the moralistic assumption that women can never voluntarily choose sex work as a profession and are always ‘trafficked' into it.

This idea has been conclusively challenged by the sex workers rights movement that has tirelessly argued that trafficking (that is induction into the trade through force, coercion or deception) is a crime whereas the exchange of sexual services between two consenting adults is not.

Just as all sex work is not linked to trafficking, all trafficking is also not linked to sex work. While it is certainly true that many women (and children) enter sex-work under violent and exploitative conditions, this is no different from other livelihood occupations in the unorganized sector such as agricultural and domestic work, construction and industrial labour. Ironically, those who demand the abolition of sex work to stop trafficking do not make the same argument for domestic work despite the fact that conditions, wages, working hours, levels of exhaustion are far worse for domestic workers.

It has been repeatedly pointed out that the statistics on `trafficking' have no basis in a rigorous methodology, scientific evidence or primary research. A study undertaken by the Special Rappateur on Violence Against Women demonstrated the extreme difficulty of finding reliable statistics since so much of the activity happens underground. Consequently, ‘trafficking' statistics are derived from figures relating to sex-work, migration and even numbers of “missing persons”. By failing to distinguish between sex-work, migration and trafficking, ‘abolitionists' like Steinem only serve to make the gender-neutral term synonymous with the female migrant.

Ironically, some of the best work on ‘trafficking' in India is being done by the Self Regulatory Boards of the Durbar Mahila Swamanyay Committee (DMSC) which emerged out of the famous STD/HIV Intervention Project (SHIP) in Sonagachi, now an internationally acclaimed model sexual health project. The DMSC considers sex-work to be a contractual sexual service negotiated between consenting sexual adults and demands decriminalization of adult sex-work. If feminists like Gloria Steinem and organizations like Apne Aap want to end trafficking in sex-work, their best bet is to recognize sex-work as labour, support its decriminalization and empower the sex-worker to fight exploitation, coercion and stigma.

Ms Shohini Ghosh is the Professor Zakir Hussain Chair at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia

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Spot on Shohini. It is surprising that a range of arguments around
"choice" "dignity" etc are limited to those who are in sex industry.
The sexworkers rights movement has spoken up against violence, abuse
and exploitation that sexworkers face from different sources -
(police, goons public, and also at times clients and partners). They
have clearly established that the violence is fueled by the so call
ambiguity in the law and have also underlined the need for sexworkers
to be organised. We must look critically at the politics of rescue.
(Rescue us from the rescuers)

from:  Shubha Chacko
Posted on: Apr 12, 2012 at 21:25 IST

A very appealing article.
Sex-workers need to be recognized as laborers who work on daily wages.
There are a few ways of empowerment for women who are illiterate and
abandoned by the society. If what they chose to do is right in their
perspective then who is the third person to question their source of
livelihood?

from:  Anukriti Agarwal
Posted on: Apr 8, 2012 at 03:03 IST

Does reason make you liberal or you are paid for it?

from:  Harsh Mittal
Posted on: Apr 6, 2012 at 21:59 IST

A very rational and thought provoking article. It's time the sex worker is treated like any other person trying to make a livelihood, criminalizing sex drives the trade underground and makes women more liable to be trafficked and exploited.
Having said that I'm surprised by the absence of trolls who come storming in with their self righteous comments.

from:  arvind
Posted on: Apr 6, 2012 at 18:31 IST

Decades we are talking about the depravity of women indulging in
commercial sex work but no constructive efforts are made to minimize the
severe sufferings of women indulging in this activity. Decriminalization
is the most urgently needed action. This would allow the commercial sex
workers to assert themselves, allow them to indulge in their "earning
activity" without losing the large percentage to brokers, police, or
rowdies. Enough debates have taken place but no one wants to look at the
reality.

from:  chandrasekaran
Posted on: Apr 6, 2012 at 16:54 IST
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